No parent is prepared to hear the words “I wish I were dead” or “I don’t want to live anymore” from their children. When a child says something so shocking, it’s sometimes tempting to think that he doesn’t know what he’s saying or that he doesn’t mean it.
However, if your child expresses even the slightest intention to commit suicide, the first thing you should do is take his words very seriously, since suicide is the second leading cause of death among children and adolescents.
The pandemic has taken a huge toll on the mental health of children and adolescents. In fact, during the first year of the pandemic, suicides in these ages doubled.
If your child comes to you with suicidal thoughts, experts recommend that you take the following steps.
First, take a deep breath
If your child hints that he is contemplating suicide, the first thing you should do is take a few seconds to think and take a deep breath.
“It’s important to make that pause,” says pediatric psychologist Ann-Louise Lockhart. “If your 12-year-old son has had the confidence to tell you that, you must value it and it is very important that you pay attention to him. As parents, we don’t want to shut down communication by reacting too emphatically or downplaying it.”
Before reacting, take advantage of the moment to assess your own emotions.
Pediatrician Shairi Turner says: “Control your emotions and remember that your child has made the decision to come to you because he trusts you. He remembers that he is talking to you and that he feels safe right now.”
Turner also recommends saying something like, “You’ve been very brave to tell me you’re having these thoughts. I’m here with you and I want to keep you safe.”
Ask him questions to assess his level of risk
Try to figure out if he’s saying it because of something that just happened or if he’s been having these thoughts for a while. It is possible that he has what Lockhart calls “morbid thoughts”, that is, thoughts about death, but without the desire to die.
Turner recommends that you ask open-ended questions, such as, “Can you tell me more about that? I want to make sure I get it,” or “You said X. Can you tell me what X means to you?”
If he is a young child, you can also ask him what he thinks death means, or where he thinks he would go if he died.
If he expresses his wish to die, ask him the following questions to try to assess the seriousness of the thoughts.
- Have you thought about these things before?
- Do you do it often?
- How long has it been happening to you?
- When you think about dying, do you think about how you would do it?
It is very important that you ask your child if he has a plan for self-harm and, if he does, that you contact his pediatrician immediately.
Ideally, even before having these thoughts, your child knows that he can talk to you about death and suicidal thoughts.
“A lot of times, kids are scared of their parents’ reaction or that it’s going to be unbearable for them,” says Turner. “Let your child know that these thoughts can come out of nowhere and that you won’t be shocked if he ever tells you. Let him know that you want to hear what’s going through his mind so he doesn’t have to face these thoughts alone.”
Avoid saying something that ends the conversation
Avoid phrases like “Don’t say that!” or “Why do you say that?” recommends Lockhart. You don’t want your child to feel judged or embarrassed for coming to you with these thoughts.
“Don’t try to lighten his concerns. What looks like a grain of sand to you may look like a mountain to a child,” Turner explains.
It is also advisable to avoid topics such as “Everything will be fine” or “It will be solved soon”. Your son has problems and is looking for help now.
Depending on the severity of your child’s thoughts, you can also ask for professional help.
“If your child tells you that these thoughts have been continuous, frequent, recurring and intrusive, it is best that you see a professional,” recommends Lockhart.
Both Lockhart and Turner recommend going to any professional in your network who can help you find mental health care for your child; for example, your child’s pediatrician, psychologist or social worker at school.
If your child has made a plan to commit suicide, you should seek help immediately and take your child to the emergency room if necessary. Especially if he has access to guns or pills, or if he doesn’t promise to “stay safe for now,” Turner says. If you see that the situation exceeds you, you can take it to the emergency room.
And even if your child does not have a plan to harm himself, you must act as soon as possible.
“Although suicidal thoughts may come and go, once your child has come to you, you can assume he’s been having these thoughts for a while,” says Lockhart.
It is very important to remember that talking to your child about suicide is not putting the idea in his head or making him more likely to commit suicide.
“The data tells us that asking about death wishes or about dying does not cause a child to attempt suicide. In fact, create a safe space for your child to talk honestly about how he feels,” says Turner.
Let your children know that you are there for them, regardless of what they think or feel. Make sure you know in advance what resources you can access.
“We are experiencing a mental health pandemic, and as parents, you are not alone in this crisis,” Turner concludes.